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Impearls: GWAC: War in the Wilderness

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Earthdate 2009-12-15

War in the Wilderness   by Hendrik Willem van Loon

Charles Willson Peale's George Washington in 1772, in the uniform of a colonel of the Virginia Regiment


Charles Willson Peale's George Washington in 1772,
in the uniform of a colonel of the Virginia Regiment

In the year 1753 Governor Dinwiddie had appointed him a major and had sent him into the wild West with orders to find the commander of the French forces, who, after an overland voyage from Canada, had occupied the greater part of the Ohio Valley.  Major Washington was to remind his French colleague that he was poaching on British territory and to suggest that he leave as soon as possible.

Whether on this occasion Washington was guided by his own woodcraft, by divine Providence, or by his interpreter, Jacob Vanbraam, I could not tell you, but Washington did find the man he was looking for and delivered his message.  The Frenchman courteously invited him to dinner in a fort which is now the town of Waterford, in Pennsylvania, but added that for the present, at least, he and his French troops intended to remain where they were.

This refusal on the part of the French to withdraw their forces led to skirmishes, and these skirmishes in turn led to war.  During this conflict Washington, badly supported by the undisciplined colonial troops, was taken prisoner by the French and was only released after he had signed a promise that the British would not try to build any other fortifications in the Ohio Valley for at least a year.

After the failure of their irregular troops, the London authorities hoped to have better luck with their regulars.  In February, 1755, General Edward Braddock arrived in Virginia.  Washington, like most of the other native officers, had withdrawn from army life.  The reason for such a step?  These American-born fighters resented being treated as “colonials.”  No “colonial” officer could receive the same pay as one born in the old country, and any colonial officer, no matter what rank he held, was supposed to be inferior to a mere youngster who held a direct commission from the King.

It was that sort of thing — that irrepressible habit of all good Britishers to act in a superior manner toward all non-Britishers — which had more to do with the outbreak of the American Revolution than all the taxes on tea and all the stamps on official documents.  But England was not to learn this until more than a century and a half later.

Heaven knows, these colonials had no reason to feel inferior toward their London superiors.  General Braddock, in spite of his personal bravery, was as ignorant of wilderness warfare as the commander of the Horse Guards, a hundred years later, was to be unfamiliar with the topography of the territory around Balaklava.  And if it had not been for George Washington (who at the last moment had once more taken to the field, probably anticipating what was going to happen), hardly a man of that British expeditionary force would have come back alive.

In consequence whereof, Colonel Washington was appointed to the post of commander in chief of all the Virginia troops.  Did all this teach the British regulars their lesson?  It did not.  For when George Washington, holder of a colonial appointment, told a mere captain with a royal commission to do something he wanted done, the captain told him to go jump into the lake.  And Washington was obliged to travel all the way to Boston, where the British commander in chief was stationed, to get redress for this insult.

This time he won out, but it was that sort of inexcusable stupidity and arrogance which kept the colonials in a constant state of irritation.  It is quite understandable that the Virginian, whose health had been greatly impaired by his campaign in the wilderness, used the first possible opportunity to resign his commission and refused to have anything further to do with British officialdom.  From then on he was going to enjoy the quiet life of a plantation owner, and the world, whether sober or drunk, could pass by his door — it was to be no concern of his what happened to it.  A military lean-to in the forest was at best a pretty poor sort of makeshift, where as a home of his own in his beloved Virginia would allow him to forget the hardships and discomforts of his earlier days in the field.

Antonio Canova's George Washington in the garb of a Roman soldier


Antonio Canova's George Washington in the garb of a Roman soldier

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